Policy Analysis No. 74

U.S. Aid to Anti-Communist Rebels: The “Reagan Doctrine” and Its Pitfalls

Executive Summary

A critical change in U.S. foreign policy toward world communism has begun during the past year. In marked contrast to the established cold war doctrine of “containing” Soviet expansionism, the new strategy envisions American moral and material support for insurgent movements attempting to oust Soviet-backed regimes in various Third World nations. Initial hints of this “Reagan Doctrine” surfaced in the president’s February 1985 State of the Union Address when he affirmed, “We must not break faith with those who are risking their lives—on every continent from Afghanistan to Nicaragua—to defy Soviet aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth. Support for freedom fighters is self-defense.”[1]

Administration rhetoric on this theme increased dramatically thereafter. In a speech on February 16, 1985, President Reagan reiterated his assumption that a kinship exists between this country and anti-communist liberation movements:

Time and again we’ve aided those around the world struggling for freedom, democracy, independence and liberation from tyranny… . In the 19th century we supported Simon Bolivar, the great liberator. We supported the Polish patriots, the French resistance and others seeking freedom. It’s not in the American tradition to turn away.[2]

The implication was obvious: the United States has an obligation to aid the latest generation of “freedom fighters.” Secretary of State George Shultz expanded on this embryonic policy assumption in a February 22, 1985, speech before San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. There and in a subsequent Foreign Affairs article, Shultz asserted that a wave of democratic revolution was sweeping the world. He contended that for years the USSR and its proxies have acted without restraint to back insurgencies designed to spread communist dictatorships. Wars of national liberation “became the pretext for subverting any non-communist country in the name of so-called ‘socialist interationalism.”’ At the same time, the infamous “Brezhnev Doctrine” proclaimed that any victory of communism was irreversible. According to Shultz, the Soviets were saying to the world: “What’s mine is mine. What’s yours is up for grabs.”[3]

Although for a time Moscow’s strategy seemed to be working, Shultz stated, such Soviet “pretensions” have provoked a wave of democratic rebellions in the 1980s. In Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Cambodia, Mozambique, Angola, and elsewhere, forces have arisen to challenge Marxist hegemony. This change was of momentous importance, according to Shultz:

Where once the Soviets may have thought all discontent was ripe for turning into communist insurgencies, today we see a new and different kind of struggle: people around the world risking their lives against communist despotism. We see brave men and women fighting to challenge the Brezhnev doctrine.[4]

America has a long tradition of supporting the struggle of other peoples for freedom, democracy, and independence, the secretary of state emphasized. To turn our back on that tradition would mean conceding that communist revolutions were irreversible, something the Reagan administration would never countenance. “So long as communist dictatorships feel free to aid and abet insurgencies in the name of ‘socialist internationalism,’” Shultz asked, “why must the democracies, the target of this threat, be inhibited from defending their own interests and the cause of democracy itself?”[5]

Initially, the Reagan administration’s rhetoric was considerably more universal than its actual policies. Indeed, even Shultz conceded that the “nature and extent” of U.S. support “necessarily varies from case to case.”[6] In practice, this proviso meant that Washington was willing to provide material assistance to Afghan resistance fighters facing Soviet occupation forces and to Nicaraguan contras seeking to oust the Sandinista government. The Reagan administration seemed considerably less responsive to the aid requests of insurgent movements in Cambodia, Angola, and Mozambique. Particularly in the latter two cases, embracing the rebel cause conflicted with other foreign policy objectives, most notably the promotion of regional political stability.

If the administration assumed that it could confine support for anti-Marxist insurgencies to the realm of rhetoric, translating words into concrete action only in selected cases such as Nicaragua, it miscalculated. The Reagan Doctrine fired the enthusiasm of the conservative movement in the United States as no foreign policy issue has done in decades. At last, said conservatives, there was a strategy that transcended the sterile, defensive containment doctrine and offered the possibility of helping to liberate nations already suffering under communist domination. [7]

Existing conservative organizations and a proliferation of new ones have rushed to promote the cause of Third World “freedom fighters.” Some have raised funds or provided direct material assistance (medical supplies, clothing, and sometimes military hardware) to specific rebel movements.[8] In the summer of 1985, Lewis Lehrman, chairman of Citizens for America, even organized a conclave of four insurgent leaders in Jamba, capital of rebel-held Angola, to form the Democratic International.[9]

Conservatives who embrace the Reagan Doctrine express outrage that the administration’s actions have not always matched its rhetoric. Ironically, Shultz, who initially articulated aspects of the doctrine, has become the principal target of rightist wrath for not implementing its objectives with sufficient zeal.[10] Throughout 1985 and early 1986, conservative pressure mounted on the administration to translate its rhetorical support for anti-communist rebellions into sustained and consistent action. There are unmistakable signs, most notably with respect to Angola, that this criticism is having an effect.

Since the Reagan Doctrine promises to become a program with far-reaching foreign policy implications, it is vital to examine its assumptions and probable consequences. Before the U.S. government decides to encourage and endorse anti-communist insurgent movements—much less provide material assistance to them—some serious questions must be addressed. First, is there an underlying theme to the struggles, or are the dynamics of each “revolutionary situation” radically different? Second, would U.S. support essentially counteract existing intervention by the Soviet bloc, or would it constitute egregious interference in the internal affairs of other nations? Third, is the administration correct in its perception that the various insurgencies are animated by democratic, pro-Western, and anti-Soviet values? Fourth, can the United States assist these rebellions without risking either a direct clash with the USSR or a gradual escalation of commitments that may culminate in a disastrous military entanglement? Finally—and most important—is supporting anti-communist insurgencies in the Third World essential to American security?

There are no easy answers to any of these questions. The strength of the case for U.S. support of rebel movements varies markedly from country to country, but the preponderance of the evidence suggests three important, general conclusions. First, in only some instances do the circumstances warrant an official U.S. endorsement of the insurgency and (perhaps) diplomatic recognition. Second, in no case is the situation sufficiently compelling to justify aid programs—especially military assistance—on the part of the American government. Third, private individuals and organizations wishing to support foreign movements compatible with their own ideologies should be able to do so without governmental restrictions or harassment. Indeed, privatizing the Reagan Doctrine is the most attractive and feasible alternative to existing policy.

Read the Full Policy Analysis

Ted Galen Carpenter is a foreign policy analyst with the CatoInstitute.